Dallas Cowboy Anthony Spencer, the NFL’s Other OLB’s, and ProFootball Focus Stats


A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with some Cowboys fans about Anthony Spencer. The major disagreement was whether or not Spencer was “average”.  Although Spencer may not be an elite pass-rusher, he is much better than average.

In a previous article on Spencer, we compared his production in 2011 with DeMarcus Ware’s. The overwhelming conclusion from that analysis was that if Ware is an All-Pro, then Spencer must be a lot better than average, but a proper consideration of whether he is average requires a comparison with the rest of the OLB’s in the NFL.

There are at least ten other NFL defenses that use the 3-4 formation as their base defense: Miami, San Francisco, Kansas City, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington, San Diego, Houston, New York Jets, and Arizona.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, there were 19 players who played OLB in a 3-4 system for more than 50% of the snaps in 2011.

As with the previous analysis, the grades from PFF are not used, since they are partially subjective.  The statistics can all be verified, so that is all that is used.

The Advanced Statistics from ProFootballFocus (organized by sacks):

 Name Team# of snapsSacksQB HitsQB HurriesTacklesAssistsStops
 DeMarcus WareDAL9132084427842
 Tamba HaliKC100912104145740
 Connor BarwinHST98612182428726
 Brian OrakpoWAS9561064337732
 Cameron WakeMIA9049205234332
 James HarrisonPIT6819112338738
 Ryan KerriganWAS10569123640933
 Jason TaylorMIA5307121611411
 Justin HoustonKC773631345232
 Clay MatthewsGB9706214037735
 Brooks ReedHST799662328729
 Sam AchoARZ575601222417
 Anthony SpencerDAL9396935531139
 Ahmad BrooksSF967683728928
 Calvin PaceNYJ977582357544
 Shaun PhillipsSD6414520261022
 Clark HaggansARZ885462533822
 Erik WaldenGB91831422411119
 Travis LaBoySD6471413261015

How Do Spencer’s Stats Compare to other OLB’s?

Pass Rushing:

1. Spencer was tied for 9th among OLB’s with 6 sacks in 2011.  His 6 sacks tied him with other well-known OLB’s like Clay Mathews in Green Bay and Ahmad Brooks in San Francisco.

2. The only team with two OLB’s that both had 6 or more sacks was Miami: Jason Taylor had 7, and Cameron Wake had 9.  So, if you were to compare Spencer to the 2nd best OLB on all the other teams, Spencer had more sacks than all of them except Jason Taylor in Miami.

(Editor’s Note:  Thank you to Jon Vantrease for pointing out that Washington also had 2 OLB’s with more than 6 sacks, and a couple teams had, like Dallas, one OLB with over 6 and one with 6.)

3. Anthony Spencer was also tied for 9th place in QB hits with 9.

4. Spencer was 8th in QB hurries with 35.

Other Relevant Stats:

When we look at the other, non pass-rushing stats, Spencer fares much better.

1. He was second, to only Calvin Pace of the NY Jets, in tackles, with 53.  Pace had 57, but the next closest to Spencer was Tamba Hali with 45.

2. Spencer led all OLB’s with 11 assists.

3. Anthony Spencer was tied for 5th in the NFL, among all defensive players (not just OLB’s), with 4 forced fumbles.

4. In what might be the most important and revealing statistic – “STOPS” – Spencer was 4th among OLB’s with 39.  Pace led the NFL with 44.

ProFootballFocus defines the “STOP” as:

Any defensive solo tackle that constitutes an offensive failure (including sacks).”

The Significance of the “STOPS” Stat:

It is hard to imagine a much more important stat than “stop” the way they define it.  If Ware is the best OLB in the NFL, as I certainly believe he is, and he made 42 solo tackles including his sacks that resulted in offensive failures, it seems inconceivable that Spencer got so close to Ware at 39 if he was only average.  While sacks are certainly the best possible outcome, making these ‘stops’ seem very like a reasonable and reliable criteria for evaluating an OLB’s overall ability (the only thing that it doesn’t cover is turnovers).

If you can think of a single statistic that would be a better indicator of a OLB’s play-making abilities or a more accurate measure of a OLB’s impact on a football game than “STOPS”, I would love to hear about it.

I have often argued that tackles are an extremely poor way of evaluating a defensive player.  The basic objection is that a terrible defense that gets scored on all the time will necessarily have defenders who have to make a high number of tackles.

The beauty of ProFootballFocus’ “stop” stat is that it eliminates all the meaningless tackles from the solo stops that had a direct impact on the game.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of those 39 stops made by Spencer, or the fact that DeMarcus made 42, and the NFL leader (Calvin Pace) only had 44. Anthony Spencer made more tackles than any OLB in the NFL, except Calvin Pace, with 53.  An impressive 39 of those 53 tackles were “STOPS”.

If you think about the importance of the ‘stop’ category, Spencer’s statistics suggest that his overall play is much better than the average OLB in the NFL regardless of the number of sacks he had.

This look at Anthony Spencer will conclude in a few days when Spencer’s ability to disrupt the opposing QB will be considered in more detail and then compared to other OLB’s who play the 3-4.

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